BEFORE THE FALL: THE EMBERS OF WAR
BEFORE THE FALL
For some reason I have failed this year to post reviews of a number of books that I loved and are central to this blogh. How does this happen? Well, distraction I suppose. As I did last year, I want to end this year with at least thumbnail sketches, or exhortations, or blurbish endorsements, for these books, and I will start with Professor Fredrik Logevall’s book on the origins of American involvement in the Vietnam War, The Embers of War.
I cannot praise this book enough, both as a major contribution to the understanding of the debacle (moral, political, military, and cultural) we call the Vietnam War and more generally, as a work of history. The Embers of War is first and foremost a grand, detailed narration of events. It is a long book, but remarkable still for how much he packs into its pages. Few historians can manage the level of narrative complexity Logevall achieves. Beginning in the early years of the 20th century, he quickly moves to the period the books focuses on, the French war with the Viet Minh, 1946-1954. Logevall contextualizes the war first. And he is always after the consequences of this conflict, which is the American assumption of the failed mission of the French, which was not only to defeat a Communist insurgency (America’s great obsession) but to prevent the Vietnamese from becoming independent. This is part of the complexity, the key to the European response in the aftermath of a world war to the rise of Communism in the Third World. France, which had an active Communist Party, and leftist governments, was interested in retaining empire, not defeating Communism. England also was looking at its prize possession, India. England switched around, first urging, and then opposing further American involvement. But America was still paying lip service to its Anti-Colonialist heritage, such as it was, and wanted nominal independence for Vietnam, as a way of defeating Communism. Thus it is that millions of people died.
The book is not just a history of the French conflict. It is a diplomatic, military and political history that includes, vitally, all of the various Vietnamese players, from the coalition that was the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh (who I think would have been like Nelson Mandela had he been able to preside over a unified and independent country in 1946), to the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao and, of course, Diem. The British, the Russians, The Chinese, the Japanese and the Americans all play roles here and Logevall is able to give each their due. There are also detailed descriptions of battles and generals. Really, there is detail enough to satisfy the most voracious lover of history’s need for a multicourse feast.
A fascinating, and important facet of the book is theoretical. Most historians writing an old fashioned history such as this would not address, or would address polemically, theoretical issues that suggest themselves by this choice. Which is an inelegant way of saying, Logevall several times in the text addresses the use of counterfactuals, and the bigger issue of the role of individuals in the making of history. Logevall shows clearly that there were numerous points where policy could have gone in a different direction but didn’t. Individual people made individual decisions that affected the course of history, and they did so in the face of opposing viewpoints. He does not come down hard on one side or the other, of structural versus contingent history. One of the things about the history of Vietnam in general, and of the history of Vietnam in this century specifically, is it functions as an historical laboratory, a microscope, a petri dish of history. So Logevall concludes ultimately that the Anti-Communist ideology that seized hold of the American mind was able, ultimately, to trump reason. This is not a startling conclusion, and would be one embraced by any structuralist historian, but Logevall sees it as a close call. Had Roosevelt lived, or Truman elected to follow his policy of decolonization, the outcome would have been different. If.
It is only when a generation of historians begins to write this history as Logevall does (and he has written other books about America in Vietnam) that Americans, those at least who are curious, will begin to understand the dimensions of what we like to call a tragedy, but what I think is more aptly called an historic crime. Logevall, fortunately, is more free of the passions in this regard than I am. He refers to the experience many of us have had, that of being bitten by the Vietnam History bug. Oh, what a bite it is! Anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the immense pleasures of a true, broad, and beautiful historical narrative, should get this book.